Category Archives: Classroom Culture

“A Sea of Talk”

“Writing floats on a sea of talk.” – James Britton.

ocean waves

Photo by Artem Saranin on Pexels.com

If you’re an avid 3TT reader, I’m sure that’s not the first time you’ve read that phrase. In fact, Amy mentioned it here just a few short days ago, and we’ve definitely discussed how to get students to talk to each other on this website before. For me, I didn’t hear of James Britton or this idea of a “sea of talk” until I joined my local Writing Project. (As always, I can not speak highly enough of how the Middle Tennessee Writing Project changed the trajectory of my career and the practices within my classroom. If you aren’t involved with your local Writing Project, I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek out those groups and immerse yourself into that community.)

Shameless plug for WP over… I found myself for two weeks straight during my Writing Project ISI starting each day with a little bit of writing, then some variation of turn and talk before returning to our writing. That process – write, share, write some more, share some more, write some more – was presented to us in multiple ways over that two weeks but all of those activities at their core were some variation of that process. And it’s one I’ve taken to heart.

Of course, our ideas are stronger after we spend some time with them in conversation, after we hear feedback from our peers. Of course, just the simple act of speaking out loud is sometimes  enough to jumpstart an idea or solve a problem. In the programming world, this process is called Rubber-ducking. Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that our students should only ever write in isolation when they have so much to say and share. So, it’s our responsibility to just get out of the way in the classroom and allow that “sea of talk” to rise and fall, ebb and flow. A former sage on the stage teacher, I had to realize that my voice alone wasn’t enough to create a “sea.”

The latest iteration of this rising and falling in my class literally involves rising. In doing some research on how to make argumentation a more natural and low-stakes part of the classroom, I stumbled upon Dave Stuart Jr.’s blog where he discusses Pop-up Debates. I fell into a deep rabbit hole of links upon links, occasionally shouting at the dog, “This is great!” and “Oh, man! This is going to be good.” B was just as enthused as I was. He’s supportive like that.

The Pop-up Debate works like this: Explain the concept of the pop-up shop and relate it to the pop-up debate. Encourage everyone to participate. Students command the floor by ‘popping-up’ at their desks and beginning to speak. If multiple people pop-up, students politely yield the floor. There are no declared winners because everyone wins when the conversation is lively and intelligent. Encourage students to debate all sides – nothing is so boring as a circle of agreement and repetition.

And that’s it. It’s a simple practice, highly adaptable and extremely engaging.

For our first pop-up, I asked students to respond to a question about honor codes that I pulled from an old AP Language synthesis prompt. They wrote on their own for about ten minutes before test-running their ideas with a partner. Then, they popped for about 17 minutes. I found it fascinating to hear how their conversation grew and moved and evolved as they examined new facets of the conversation. Students who are reluctant to raise their hands stepped up to discuss with no prompting from me at all. Students questioned their peers’ assumptions, asked clarifying questions, raised new points, offered counterarguments, moved from specific evidence to social implications, made their points passionately. In short, as a class, we practiced several of the skills required for good writing collectively in a very low-stakes environment.

Then, we turned back to our notebooks and wrote again before debriefing as a class about how the conversation changed or added to their thinking. Simple and powerful.

Pop-ups can easily be used as a means to practice all manner of writing skills while also working on speaking skills. For example, for our second pop-up, we discussed the extent to which the study of philosophy was useful in modern society. Here, we focused on using accountable talk at the beginning of statements to show relationships between ideas – a skill we’re practicing in other ways for the synthesis portion of the AP exam. This week, when we pop-up, students will track the flow of the conversation in their WNs, and we’ll use this to jumpstart mini-lessons on counterarguments.

I hope that this method is one that you can take to your classroom and use right away. I’m always interested in how others keep that “sea” churning in their classrooms. Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is reading Mary Oliver for the first time and considering what being a “bride married to amazement…[a] bridegroom, taking the world into my arms” will look like for herself. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

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Sowing Seeds of Light: Reflections Following Time with Cornelius Minor

In October, I heard Kelly Gallagher explain that “our job is to create an ecosystem that serves to democratize opportunity.” In December, I observed Cornelius Minor facilitate this in my classroom. Yep, you read that right. THE Cornelius Minor spent an hour with my students, modeling the moves he makes to “disperse power throughout the room,” swiftly engaging students while simultaneously instructing a group of educators.

At all times, Minor modeled what democratization looks like. Prior to the hour in my classroom with students, he spent time with the staff who would be present during the lesson, in his own words, “planting seeds of ownership.” He asked us, “How are you?” and “What’s one thing to work on with you that would meet the needs of students?”. We delineated this, worked in conjunction with him to plan the lesson, and ultimately, “opted into learning” (Minor’s words again).

What followed in the classroom portion of the experience was remarkable. Because my colleagues asked for modeling of close reading, selecting evidence, and metacognition, Minor engaged the students in a digital text–a short video clip from a TV show–and chunked close reading into noticing stuff and providing structured opportunities for talk (structured in that each student had a role to fulfill). From there, he moved to a more complex text (a controversial poem) and continued to ask students to notice stuff; then he offered multiple perspectives on the text, asking students to grapple with these frames, seek evidence, and explore the inherent symbolism. My students simply, as they later reflected, had no timed to get bored or distracted. I observed true cognitive energy, energy sparked by intellectual curiosity, energy that connected my students one to another, each connection a charged particle contained into a beam of light on that December morning.

This light pushed me to confront the idea that my kindness and my work ethic will be enough. That when things aren’t quite right in the classroom, I can just work harder–at relationships, strategies, skills, feedback, whatever. I am not Orwell’s Boxer. In fact, if I continue defaulting to my strengths (of hard work and kindness) instead of working in small deliberate ways to grow, I oppress my students and myself. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got new terms to perseverate on, strategies to focus to, and questions to keep asking myself. And that beam of light will keep me focused on growth.

Terms to Absorb

Important: (for the student to know later–for that test, the next class, college): a teacher-centric term, a framing that doesn’t necessarily account for students’ perspectives or experiences at that moment.

Text Agnostic: without preference for specific texts. See “important” above. Connects to the value of choice in workshop. Means seeking out regularly what’s on students’ minds to cull texts.

Cognitive Overload: what a learner experiences when both the context and content are beyond readiness (both content and context are hard or unfamiliar). This stifles growth and ultimately creativity.

Justice: “what love looks like in public” (Minor).  

Aspirational Discomfort: What I’m experiencing as a professional right now. Have I mentioned I’ve got work to do? But I’ve already mentioned my Boxer-like tendencies, so…  

Strategies to Disperse Power

Feedback: One of the most important ways workshop presents opportunities to democratize learning is through feedback. Yes, by providing students with affirming and constructive feedback, I communicate to my students that their ideas and words matter in this classroom. But by seeking feedback from students (which is an additional strategy Minor modeled so well), I model the openness a writer needs for growth–even when not modeling this with writing. After all, I am a person in position of authority seeking opportunities to keep growing and getting better. Yes, we tout teacher vulnerability all the time as a tenet of workshop. But there are a million tiny little ways to do this beyond what we do already that will strengthen our ecosystems.

  • Position students in roles to provide feedback (and Minor emphasizes to let students know you’re doing just that); during his time in my class, Minor selected a student to help signal when something was confusing. Since his visit, I’ve been more deliberate and consistent about pulling aside a few students to check in on my pacing, and I plan to make this a routine in my classroom.
  • Seek feedback mid-stream: check in with students in various ways. Ask for permission to keep going. Ask how they’re feeling. Read Minor’s book and you’ll discover other informal ways, including the on-the-fly class meeting.

Roles: A fairly common practice of collaboration, especially within small groups, relies on taking roles.

  • As a teacher, I can share with students when I have conflicted feelings or interpretations of a text (this is a good thing–it models how our understanding is always evolving. Several students reflected on the power of this.).  Awareness of my confliction communicates that the authoritative interpretation of the text doesn’t begin and end with me. My role shifts, however infinitesimally. 
  • Use these conflicted interpretations, critics’ various interpretations, or ones students generate themselves to assign students roles to take. Minor used a complex and controversial text and, after offering two ways to frame it, assigned students (using partners A  and B) to find evidence to support their viewpoints. Roles extended to other tasks of this close reading of this text. Another student noted how “each person had something to look for” while another remarked that “he made us all feel included and excited.”

Questions to Encourage the Reflection Necessary for Doing the Work

  • How do I fuel my students to preserve that cognitive energy?
  • How do I scaffold experiences so as to avoid cognitive overload?
  • In what ways and at what times do my students “opt” into learning?
  • In what situations in the past have my students “opted” into learning?
  • In what ways can I plant seeds of ownership?
  • How do I send power throughout the room?

I’ll keep doing the work. I’ll continue the journey of democratizing my classroom in small ways, every day. I’ll work to improve how students see themselves in my classroom, helping them harness the power that’s always been theirs. I’ll keep sowing seeds of light. 

Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She marvels at her students who so readily engaged in the moment, even with a classroom full of educators studying their every move. She marvels, too, at the light emanating forth from the giants in our field, inspiring us all to keep reaching. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Keeping It Real As a Teacher of Writers

I have taken up watercolor. It’s been ages since I tried a new hobby, and I find the challenge pretty intense. Prone to put perfectionistic pressure on myself, my need to “get it right” limits my ability to play. This is problematic. And pretty stupid.

I will never get better if I do not take risks — with brushes or pigment or with the water.

For a long while now, I’ve followed my friend Laura’s work with watercolors. Her talent paints.jpgpiqued my desire to give painting a try, so I sent her a message asking advice on beginner supplies. She was gracious and encouraging in her response.

Then, I bought not three brushes but nine, not one medium-grade paint set but five, not one pad of paper but seven — in a variety of sizes. And I saved over 48 watercolor tutorials on Pinterest, plus, watercolor images of flowers, people, trees, waves, birds, landscapes, gardens. . .and pigs; and followed 18 watercolor artists on Instagram.

Because it seemed a lot easier to get ready to learn to paint than it did to try and fail.

Kind of like writing.

If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I’ve been thinking about writing a book almost since starting 3TT. I’ve outlined three now. But I think and talk and read what others say about writing much more than I write. Like my hesitation about painting, this is problematic.

Of course it is.

And it reminds me of many of my student writers — the fear of getting it wrong or not making the grade, the vulnerability it takes to put ideas out there.

It’s real, and sometimes it’s stifling.

As I’ve worked to conquer my fear of learning to watercolor, practicing lessons on Skillshare (which has a plethora of lessons on multitudes of topics — check it out if you haven’t), trying new brushes and different washes and color combinations, and, finally, just relaxing into my art, I’ve discovered what I hope all young writers discover:

Writers must write for themselves. They write because they feel the tug of it, the need to express thoughts and ideas and meaning. Because they want to. Just as I paint for myself –the joy of it, the adventure in seeing if I can, the peace it brings me.

Recently, 3TT was asked this question on Twitter:  How often do you think MS and HS writers should publish? and I responded–

3tt tweet

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since, and my thinking has led to more questions than answers:  How can we help our writers set personal goals for their writing? Which comes first:  the personal goal or the desire to write? If there’s no desire, can writers still write well? Does it matter if students write well?

Of course it does.

But just like every watercolorist finds her style, every writer must find his. All too often, school writing means prompts and formulaic structures, word counts and rubrics that restrict meaning-making more than they invite it.

So what can we do to open spaces that invite writers into the vulnerable places needed to grow? The best way I know is to keep it real.

Here’s a short list of what real means to me as I teach writers.

  1. Design Lessons based on what real writers do. For example, they don’t use standardized prompts — they come up with ideas they want to explore, creating their own prompts. Try quickwrites that inspire students to think about their lives and the world around them. Plan time for them to talk to their peers in ways that expands their thinking. Plan time for them to explore topics that interest them or challenge their thinking. Don’t just ask students to write about what they know. Ask them to write about what they notice.
  2. Make your writing life visible. Our writers need to see our thinking as we organize our thoughts into words on a page. They need to see us clarify, discover, and make meaning. They need to see that revision leads to improvement. Revision is not just a one-and-done step in the writing process. It’s not a strategy. Revision is a living breathing move writers make, and they make it often. Model all of the moves you do as a thinker, reader, and writer.
  3. Talk about everything related to writing and writers. “Writing floats on a sea of talk” (James Britton). Our writers need to share their ideas with one another — and with us as writing coaches in conferences. Often, we wait to invite writers to talk about their writing in peer feedback groups or in conferring sessions after they have penned their drafts. Real writers talk throughout their writing processes — from idea to draft into revision and on to redrafting. Talk leads to clarity and discovery, and in my experience, purposeful talk is the best resource teachers have for helping all students grow in confidence as writers.
  4. Immerse writers in beautiful language, clever word play, effective and powerful stories, essays, and poetry. Mentor texts that show students the impact of word choice, figurative language, and everything else from how an author creates believable characters to using dialogue to propel a plot forward are valuable teaching tools. Studying mentor texts helps students internalize what writers do. They come to recognize organizational patterns and structures they may choose to use in their own writing. Before I write pretty much anything of import, I study mentors. Don’t you?
  5. Make writing personal and purposeful. When we write about things we care about for readers we care about, we make deliberate choices as writers. Too often, and I am guilty of this myself, our writers only write for their teacher. Now, maybe your students differ from mine, but I’ve taught many a writer who didn’t care that I was her reader, and it showed. However, when I removed myself as my students’ primary audience and worked to build a community of writers where they wrote for one another, almost every student (sadly, there’s often a few hold outs) began to take greater care and ownership of their writing. They knew they had readers other than me. Of course, we can also help students determine outside-of-class purposes and audiences for their writing, and I encourage it; however, I’ve found that sharing our writing within our own classroom community is just as effective.

By no means do I claim to know it all when it comes to teaching writers. The puzzle working with adolescents is as real as my desire to help them grow as writers — and my newfound desire to learn to watercolor. I do know authenticity matters. When we make choices about literacy instruction, steeped in the authentic practices of what real readers and writers do as they read and write, more students engage in the tasks we ask of them. They take more risks. They more often than not rise to the occasion. And they shine as writers in their own right.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post with me, I appreciate you. And while I am not super confident in my watercolor abilities, and I have a ton to learn about the art of it all, I do have a stack of 20 bookmarks I’ve painted — mostly of birds because they make me smile. If you’d like one, share this post, follow me on Twitter @AmyRass (if you aren’t already), and send me a direct message with your name and address. (First 20 only. I’ve got a book to write.)

 

Amy Rasmussen has decided she loves teaching writers more than she loves to write, but she’s working on a balance of that as she attempts to discipline herself to “get ‘er done.” She has also decided that watercolor painting is harder than it looks. Amy’s currently on a “gap year” from the high school English class as she works on a book about authentic literacy instruction and facilitates professional development as an independent literacy consultant. She misses kids. A lot.

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

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Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

The Teacher, the Story-teller, the Writer: Guest Post by Milree Latimer

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by author-educator Milree Latimer

Teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck

To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of work on the basis of those inspirations.

Aldous Huxley

Some days when I reflect upon my years as teacher, then as an elementary school principal, a high school vice- principal, and a professor of education–I see a thread. As William Stafford writes in his poem The Way It Is “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change…/While you hold it you can’t get lost…/You never let go of the thread.”

There has been a thread throughout my teaching days, one that has manifested itself in my life now as a writer and published author. It’s been there all the time. A long gaze back reveals how I have grounded myself, the children and the teachers with whom I’ve worked, in the flow of story. There is a natural quality in the life of teaching that feeds the story-teller.

The narratives and chronicles of the educator’s life fed my yearning to write.

•••••

“Come, tell me your stories.” I said. The children in my kindergarten class and I gathered on the carpet. We told stories to one another: made-up tales of adventure, show-and tell chronicles of the life of a five year old, once-upon-a-time boldness.  It was 1963.

“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

~John Green

••••

“Let’s find a story together, draw it, write it, tell it.” I said.  I set my over-sized journal on the classroom easel. One by one they talked about what their story might be that morning – there’d been a snowstorm, white drifts were accumulating at the windows. Together we thought aloud. “A weather report for school announcements!”  They wrote, they drew, they told their stories. It was 1967. It was first grade.

••••

“You had the ball in your hands, Mark with few seconds on the clock–Tell us what that was like” I said.  It was 1974. Mark was an eighth grader.

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
~May Sarton

••••

“Tell me what you hope for. Tell me what happens in your classroom that astonishes you. Tell me how you came to this, to be a teacher. Begin your educator’s biography this morning, write the last chapter when you retire.” A class of soon-to-be teachers at a Faculty of Education. September 1990.

•••••

The Graduate class was entitled “Reflective Practice.” The assignment: “What do you do; why do you do it the way you do; what do you hope for? A philosophical and personal portrait.”

A student’s response moved me. He wrote from a deep place within himself.  His was a narrative revealing his journey, his was a reflective piece of writing that inspired.

What truly set the path to my personal exploration was a question asked of me in one of my first courses taken at the Master’s level. When asked ‘who are you,’ my immediate response was ‘a wandering soul searching for answers.’ That answer came from somewhere deep inside…. I realize that there are many aspects of my life that I need to connect…I have to reflect on what it is that I actually do and the reasons surrounding that. (Tyrone Perreira, June 2004)

••••41n7v0p5fxl

Four characters in my novel THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, are a composite of graduate education students with whom I worked from 1996 till 2004.

I held the images of those students as I wrote the story of Casey MacMillan, Professor of Education. The conversations that wove throughout the chapters represented some I may have had with my Master of Education students.

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse, ill-considered questions.

 As the author of Casey’s story, I discovered my experiences engendered a quality of truth within the story.

Professor Casey, the main protagonist taught about love, loss and the human condition. Even though she locked away her emotions within her life, her teaching bore a wisdom that connected her with her students.

When I wrote Casey’s story there was a direct line between myself as teacher and myself as author. A conversation between Professor MacMillan and her doctoral student Rob exemplifies this link:

Rob opened his briefcase reached in and pulled out a manuscript–his thesis. Her hope for all her advisees and her grad students was that they discover their own energy of possibility.

“Here’s what I really want you to see.” Rob said. He leaned forward and slid a page across the smooth mahogany table.

When she finished reading the page, she placed it on the table slowly, carefully–Resting her chin on her hand she began: “It’s a radical approach to tell your own story as your thesis. Saying that, it’s not impossible…difficult yes. (P. 99 Those We Left Behind)

••••

“Capturing shards of memory, writing specific scenes, I began to discover…” (Floyd Skoot, 2008).

There is a thread that I hold. Writing is my inner life moving me into the open a passage to the page where I am exploring, imagining, and remembering. I connect to my experiences, I hold the thread, I never let go.

Writing is a coming home. Like Toko-pa Turner (2017), I remember myself home.

Resources:

Skoot, Floyd, (2017). The Wink of the Zenith. The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. University of Nebraska Press.

Turner, Toko-pa, ( 2017). Belonging. Remembering Ourselves Home.

Her Own Room Press. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

Milree Latimer is a writer who spent most of her life as an educator and professor. She has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University, a Masters of Education from The Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and a Doctoral degree in Education from Penn State University. An expat Canadian, she lives among the mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband Jerry and their three cats. She is currently at work on her next novel.

It’s a Good Day to Talk about Talk

Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.

I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students:  What does it mean to be human?

Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.

For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Let’s think about this line:  “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.

Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.

“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity:  Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?

What does it mean for you?

Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.

Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.

In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.

We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life:  deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.

Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.

But so does talk.

I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.

So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor:  Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.

 

Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms. 

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

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